Albatross of Shame

Only in very recent years – even months – have I begun to recognize the degree to which organized religion still affects my ability to overcome chronic shame – even as I consider myself currently severed from organized religion.

Growing up, I was surrounded by the spoken and unspoken messages of fundamentalist organized religion. Of course, we all knew to say and think that Jesus died for all of our sins, but in reality, many seemed to (not so) secretly believe that certain sins could automatically land one outside of the Christian category – outside of God’s grace. Some transgressions – even certain physical traits or appearances – were just too unholy for God to forgive.

If you find a man attractive and hope to share “more” with him someday, you’re guilty of lust and adultery.

If you’re a woman with an independent mind, and/or a woman who isn’t sure she wants marriage or a family, you’re less mature, less spiritual, or, *gasp*… a feminist, which every self-respecting Christian knows to be grievous to God.

If a man is inappropriate around a lady, it’s the lady’s fault for being attractive or for not covering up her beauty enough (even if that’s not possible).

I grew up with this mentality, these teachings.

Today, I find myself constantly worrying that I haven’t perfectly forgiven someone “from my heart,” even if I have already attempted to do so ten times that day, and probably hundreds or thousands of times in the past month. I worry that if I fail to perfectly forgive in this moment, none of the previous forgiveness matters, and I might end up in Hell.

Of course, I know Jesus said that whoever believes in Him has life. But I find that hard to reconcile with his other words about our Father not forgiving those who do not forgive from their hearts. How can Christians be so sure that Jesus’s words about eternal life are more important than His words about forgiveness?

And then I remember, sometimes, that Jesus was actually preaching about forgiveness – and gave His famous Sermon on the Mount – primarily to Jewish people who had been raised with the Mosaic law, and considered themselves righteous before God on the basis of their performance. Jesus was showing the Jewish people a higher – in fact, impossible – standard, because the Jews needed to see their imperfection.

On the other hand, it’s said in the scriptures that the Gentiles live by the law written on their hearts. (Rom 2:14-15) Many Gentiles never heard of Jesus’s teachings to the Jews while He walked this earth.

I find it’s easier to forgive when I’m not trying, easier to love when I’m not making an effort, perhaps even easier to have hope when I’m not fighting for hope. As soon as I try, I fail miserably, hate myself, and try harder. I often quickly develop a physical headache from this process.

Is this normal? Are my struggles an example of how the Law brings death?

It just occurred to me as I was writing that in His teaching, Jesus was showing the Jews an extended and more complete “Mosaic” law. But it was still the Law that brings death. (Rom 7:9-11)

Christians often misapply Jesus’s words about not coming to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. They take that to mean that they have to strive to live out the Hebraic law, because Jesus didn’t “abolish” it.

But Jesus is the only one who could ever fulfill the Law, and He did not only so that we don’t have to, but because we can’t.

It all points back to Jesus – what He did and who He is – not what we ought to do or be.

A well-meaning but toxic teaching in fundamentalist Christianity is that, if we have Christ in us, our flesh (external performance, desires, physical needs/struggles, etc.) should start looking more cleaned up all the time.

Well, that wasn’t Rich Mullins’ story, it wasn’t Whitney Houston’s story, it wasn’t Paul’s story, and it definitely isn’t my story.

Try as we might, our bodies and brains keep falling, failing.

It’s okay.

Jesus didn’t come to clean up everything here (at least, in our timing), but to set free our hearts and souls and awaken us to our inheritance. He came to awaken the children of the King and to cover with an everlasting blanket all the shame of this world. It will all be burned and wiped out and forgotten one day. No matter how much we mess up until then.

Of course I’m not encouraging people to go seek out trouble. But the reality is, trouble, temptation, struggles, weaknesses are inevitable. Most people don’t wake up and ask what trouble they can cause in the world. They mean well, but they are frail. The Pharisees failed to recognize or acknowledge their frailty, and Jesus had a problem with this.

Some people can put on a better show – at least for a while – but this doesn’t mean they’re any holier than the next human.

And sometimes Jesus does fix things in this life, or set us free from a prison in our lives. But it happens in His way, in His time, and for His purposes – not according to the metrics or expectations of religion. When Jesus fixes something in our lives, it is always a freeing process in which we walk into power, never a process which perpetuates shame, fear, or oppression for us – or which requires our own striving, blood, and sweat to actualize.

“Sanctification”

If there is a sanctification process, it is one of learning to rely on God’s goodness and love more, and trust in ours less. It is a process of learning to trust and rest rather than just try harder.

I know this. Yet I still struggle to silence the accusations of my own guilt, shame, and unworthiness before God because of my failures. I may not be able to work for my salvation, but somehow I still fear that I can work to lose it, or lose it by not working.

Paul’s wording (or our modern translation of his writing) is very unfortunate and confusing sometimes. “Work out your salvation…”. To which my inward response is…seriously?

Either the modern wording is different from the original, the modern meaning as we understand it is different from how the Philippians would have understood that phrase, or fundamentalists have to concede that the 66-book human-compiled package called the Bible does contain some contradictions, because elsewhere it states that salvation is not of works. (Eph 2:8-9)

I believe Paul had a significant and useful guiding influence in the early church, but I do not believe he was an early vicar of Christ, or a pope. I don’t accept the papal teaching about Peter either. It is a common defense used in Catholic churches.

Yet while many Protestant Evangelicals reject this teaching, they still make the claim to the infallibility of certain early church leaders’ writings, as if these writers were literally word-for-word mouthpieces of God (the same claim the RCC makes of their pope).

I digress. My point is, it’s easy to read a compilation of 66 books out of context or without all the information and knowledge of the culture in which and for which they were written, and make life Hell for ourselves and others with our faulty understandings. Unfortunately, this has happened a lot in organized religion and fundamentalism, and many are still held captive in the dark strongholds of these teachings which perpetuate shame and fear.

It’s easy to worship a book compiled by humans and elevate it to the level of God – or even make it our god. We want something absolute, tangible, quantifiable, and qualifiable.

Many children of God have been needlessly troubled by the confusing words from the scriptures – and the modern interpretations of and teachings on them – and they end up striving more rather than trusting more. Their hope ends up decreasing, and their fear increases.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

1 Jn 4:18

Jesus is not a sheep beater. He nudges us with His Spirit, and sometimes it’s a very firm nudging, and sometimes it hurts if we resist that nudging. But He never expects us to get our acts together perfectly or strive to be holy, or to seek salvation through anything other than Him.

The men who wrote the scriptures were not perfect (although they were used greatly by God). The same is true of theologians, writers, speakers, pastors, and priests today. Each has something to contribute. Heck, even Gollum served the purpose of destroying the ring. God uses even the most corrupt or seemingly hopeless creatures to accomplish His purposes. But that doesn’t mean we should worship the creatures or elevate them to the level of God-like infallibility, simply because they were used as instruments. The same person (or creature) can do great things and terrible things – even within the same work.

The issue is that we always want something tangible – something we can hold and own and see and quantify – to worship, or to define as “God” or “God’s voice.” For several hundred years, the Bible has served this purpose for Christians. Sometimes, well-meaning Christians trust in the Bible and their brains – and other human brains’ interpretations and teachings about the Bible – in order to “know God,” and they get misled and depressed and frustrated in the process. And sometimes, leaders use the Bible to accomplish their own desires and purposes, as slaveowners once used the scriptures to defend their ownership of slaves.

Humanity is always trying to use the “God card” to defend its own agendas and wishes. For Evangelicals, the Bible has become the God card. This reality means vigilance is required of the sheep and shepherds. We shouldn’t automatically accept a teaching because it was pumped out of a theology factory (i.e., seminary), just as we shouldn’t assume that all food and drugs approved by the FDA are beneficial or safe for our use. Even if the teaching is “proven” with scripture, we shouldn’t assume that it’s vetted and safe for our consumption, just as we shouldn’t automatically trust anyone bearing the title of “scientist,” by virtue of their nominal authority. If we do, we are committing the appeal to authority fallacy.

It’s important to remember that the majority of authorities on this earth are self-declared, or conferred by other humans misguidedly purporting to have the voice or power of God to confer that authority. This happens all the time in ecclesiastical churches, but it also happens in a more subtle way in Evagelicalism, in which the Bible is declared by Christians to be the “Word of God.” And of course, by that, Christians mean that their favored interpretations and applications of the Bible are the Word of God. And if anyone dare to question that “Word,” they are obviously questioning God Himself.

There are wolves in the flock – as well as misguided sheep and shepherds – who raise themselves up by standing on the bodies of their brothers and sisters (or those in their charge). Some feel no shame (usually, those who should be the most concerned about their actions and beliefs), and others suffer daily and hourly from the voice of condemnation, even as there is no condemnation now for those in Christ.

Religion has a way of elevating to higher heights of pride and self-assurance those without a conscience or sense of need, and ensuring the oppression of those who love God and know their smallness.

This pattern is contrary to the one Jesus demonstrated. He came to set free the captives. He showed great compassion on – and protection of – women and children, the disabled, and the messed-up people who knew they were messed-up. He lifted up the faces of the downcast, and razed the protruding heads of the proud to a level surface. Religion does the opposite.

Organized religion uses books like the Bible or the Book of Mormon to control people. Some of my readers may have a problem with my mentioning these two books in the same sentence. But humanity’s use of them is similar: both are used to proof-text the personal opinions, interpretations, and (preferred) beliefs of those in power and leadership, while keeping kind, gentle, well-meaning, God-fearing individuals under their control. When someone challenges or questions the leaders or the system, they experience Bible-bashing, shaming, and ostracization.

It doesn’t matter if the individual still wants to know God or to follow Jesus; they have broken the system, which to so many has become synonymous with God Himself.

Modern fundamentalist thinking has become simplistic, as do most of our ideas and beliefs, given enough time. It is hard for us to retain complexity and nuance for long. And so, when someone breaks our most familiar systems, we automatically respond with fear, concluding that they have broken with God, with truth, with reality – because of course our beliefs are the paragon of spirituality, truth, and reality.

Wrapping Up

If I were to walk around feeling bad (which I tend to) every time I messed up or thought maybe I messed up by a thought that ran through my mind, then I would never be able to function (which, sometimes I can’t).

The shame I fight moment-to-moment does impair my daily functions, and exacerbates my chronic illness. Somehow, I don’t believe that’s what Jesus, the healer of the blind and lame, wants for me.

He said He came to set the captives free.

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